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Top Chef: “Mano A Mano”

Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, Richard Blais
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In the opening moments of the season 12 finale of Top Chef, Mei Lin hugs her fellow finalist Gregory Gourdet before saying, “May the best man win.” Had it not been clear before this moment, it was suddenly quite apparent that Top Chef was about to add a third woman to their collection of champions.


This was Mei’s goal from the start. All to aware of the show’s paltry representation rate for women in the top spot, she was driven to settle for nothing less. But this was no easy task, because to accomplish this feat, Mei had to defeat one of the finest Top Chef contestants of all time. From the beginning of the season, Gregory was a culinary monster, winning challenge after challenge and establishing himself early on as the frontrunner. Though he saw a bit of a dip in quality as the season wore on, he righted himself quickly and came into the episode having won both of the previous challenges.

As far as reality narrative goes, something we’ve focused on a lot this season (partially because it was the most interesting thing about particularly uninspiring episodes), both finalists had compelling storylines that could have easily incorporated the ultimate triumph of being named Top Chef. Gregory is a recovering addict who turned his life around a number of years ago and has funneled his energies into honing an imaginative and deft culinary mind that handles global cuisine with aplomb. Mei shunned her parents wishes for her to pursue a career in medicine or law, instead choosing to become a chef, investing herself wholly in the professional kitchens her family desperately tried to keep her from. She yearns for their acceptance. Gregory yearns for proof that his efforts have not been in vain. They are both more than deserving of what they seek.

The final contestants are awakened early to find that they’re being driven out to the middle of nowhere.. It turns out, they’re going for a hot air balloon ride, for no reason in particular. The view from the balloon is lovely and it’s certainly giving them an opportunity to see Mexico in a way they’ve never experienced, but it’s a strange choice all the same. Still, it’s season 12 and you can’t exactly blame a show for running out of ways to kill time before the final challenge.

When finally allowed back on solid ground, the chefs are greeted by Padma and Tom who give them their final challenge: creating the best four course meal of their life. Mei and Gregory will each choose two sous chefs from the eliminated contestants before being given $2,000 and one hour to shop for their meals. They’ll then have five hours the next day to cook before serving Padma, Gail, Tom, Richard, and Hugh Acheson, along with a host of other Michelin star level chefs their food.


Since Gregory won last week’s Elimination Challenge, he’s allowed to choose first and, unsurprisingly chooses Doug. Mei then chooses Melissa (also unsurprising) before Gregory chooses George and Rebecca joins Mei’s team. It’s men versus women and at this point the gendered teams really come as no surprise.

Both Mei and Gregory seem remarkably calm when it comes to menu planning and having a vision for their dishes. To her credit, Mei has decided to finally give the chefs what they’ve been begging for and invest in bold flavors that they’ve never experienced before while also looking to blend elements of Mexico into her Chinese culinary background. Gregory, also to his credit, refuses to rest on his laurels and serve another set of Asian dishes like he’s done so often this season. He chooses to go all in with Mexican flavors, even going so far as to plan on incorporating mole sauce, a notoriously difficult element to do justice to, into one of his dishes. Mei is also not backing away from the challenge and is determined, after logging some time before the finale working the pastry station back home, to prepare a dessert, a historical Top Chef stumbling block.


In the kitchen, the teams work like clockwork, with Gregory even going so far as to write out everything that needs to be done and taping it to the wall. The chefs philosophies in approaching the final challenge could not be more different, with Mei looking for a way to come up with a way to meld the present with the past, representing a more accurate version of herself in her food and Gregory living wholly in the moment, embracing the atmosphere and culture of Mexico and refusing to dwell in the past. Both strategies are particularly poignant given each chef’s personal journey and that they were both successful in their execution was heartwarming.

The food, as one might expect, was exquisite and while the philosophies of the kitchens may have been different, there were several ingredients that found their way on both chef’s plates. Each started with an octopus course, Mei’s fried and Gregory’s grilled, but the latter was superior, given some slight overcooking on the former’s part. For the second course, each chef served a souplike dish, with Mei returning to an updated version of congee, a food she strongly relates to her youth, and Gregory opting for a shrimp broth featuring green chorizo. While Mei’s dish was exquisite, Gregory’s inclusion of shrimp shells left the judges swallowing hard. The third course the dishes diverged, with Mei preparing duck with braised lettuce and Gregory making striped bass with roasted carrots. Neither dish was perfect but Mei’s had a slight edge due to Gregory’s overly sweet carrots throwing off the overall balance of his dish. The final course from each contestant was magnificent, with Mei’s strawberry lime curd dessert going against Gregory’s red mole short ribs. The judges had not a negative thing to say about either and, in fact, seemed to fall over themselves with praise.


At this point, looking at the dishes objectively, Mei would appear to be in the lead, assuming that Gregory took the first course, Mei took the next two, and the last was too close to call. But funny things happen at Judges’ Table (see also: last week) so it was still possible that anything could happen.

The judges bring out both contestants and ask them a few questions but largely reiterate what they’ve already said amongst themselves during the dinner. After the chefs are dismissed, the judges get down to the dirty work of establishing a winner, in which time it becomes clear which judge prefers which chef. Tom is clearly for Mei, seemingly gobsmacked by her dessert in a way from which he never recovered. He seems to be joined by Gail, who may not be as fervent, is still pro-Mei. Blais continues to be Gregory’s #1 fan (nothing wrong with that) and Padma seems to share his feelings. (This is irritating only because Padma seems to get a little eye-rolly when people disagree with her in judging. And people always disagree with her.) It comes down to Hugh, then, who seems like he could go either way but seems to, ultimately, side with Tom and Gail.


In all, the finale was a beautiful testament to what people can achieve when they divest themselves of fear and focus only on performing to the best of their abilities. Like last episode, there was no gross errors in judgement, no self-sabotage. There was only two chefs battling against themselves to do better than they did before. And in that sense, they were both winners.

But in another, more accurate way, Mei is the winner.

Mei is teary and shocked and seems to feel all of the feelings she’s been beating back all season long in one fell swoop. She is lauded by her peers and even fields a call from her boss, Michael Voltaggio, in her last, touching, talking head interview. “Holy shit, chef,” indeed. Congrats to Mei Lin, Top Chef.


Season Grade: B+

Top Chef Winner: Mei

Top Chef Runner-Up: Gregory

Bitchin’ ‘Bout Blais:

  • I don’t know what was happening with his hair tonight. I honestly thought he’d opted for Adam’s top knot at one point.
  • Mei’s octopus was the biggest technical flaw? Padma had shrimp shell stuck in her throat all night.
  • Fare thee well, Blais. Thanks for the tip on the cat food. My cat loves that shit.

Stray observations:

  • All things considered, it was a great episode of Top Chef and one of the finest finales in recent memory. The season redeemed itself in a way that I wasn’t sure was possible several months ago and, for the first time in a long time, makes me wish they’d consider doing a second All Stars season, as Gregory and Doug absolutely need another shot at the title.
  • And they could set it in Portland.
  • Dang, Padma’s dress, tho.
  • I do really miss having Hugh Acheson as a regular judge.
  • That’s it for another season of Top Chef. Thanks for joining me and indulging my weird reality show conspiracy theories. Y’all are swell.

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